Where's Barbie’s family?

I went to see Barbie because I thought it would open up a conversation about the role of women in contemporary culture. My hunch was correct.

However, I thought that the film would ignore the traditional role of the doll in the lives of little girls. I was wrong. Barbie confronts it straight on, opening melodramatically in sepia to the theme music of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It shows little girls “waking up” to the realisation that they had been conditioned by their dolls to nurture their mothering instincts and precious little else.

Their moment of truth arrives when a towering, glamorous, colourful Barbie in a swimsuit strides onto the scene, winking conspiratorially at them over her sunglasses. The children stamp on the dolls they were happily playing with and a bright new age dawns for womankind.

The first 10 to 15 minutes of Barbie weren't promising. All rosy-coloured Barbieland with nothing but frivolity and winks and nods to American cultural memes, as various Barbies glide around in vertiginous heels, coiffed and groomed to plastic perfection.

Suddenly in the midst of frenetic disco dancing, Barbie brings the entire room to a tense standstill by asking “does anyone think of dying?”

Shocked stares revert to glee when Barbie breaks the tension by saying, “I mean I'm dying to dance”. The frenetic merrymaking resumes. But Barbie finds that her perfect body is showing subtle signs of aging. After taking advice from Weird Barbie she travels to the Real World to meet the child who owns her doll self and is filling her with anxiety and fears of aging and dying.

The real world is … California. If any place on earth approaches Barbieland in its pursuit of plastic perfection it is surely California with its Meghans and Victorias parading around with their poodle Kens.

Oh yes, Ken. In Barbieland Ken was just another accessory. He does nothing but strut around, bronzed and blonde in stylish, gaudy beachwear. But in the real world, he learns to be macho. Here the patriarchy is in charge. The self-confident, ever-smiling Barbie tenses up as men stare and leer at her. But Ken …? He loves it.

The board of Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie, consists of a dozen sharp tailored men in identical suits. (In the real “real world”, by the way, the board of Mattel currently has six men and five women.) California’s Barbies are nowhere to be seen and Barbie stands out like a gaudy, over-sexed mannequin. Around her are earnest, angsty woke women and “growing-old-gracefully” elderly ladies.

Barbie's owner turns out to be such a woke young woman. She ditched her Barbie doll long ago and she rants at Barbie, accusing her of “holding back women for a generation”. Barbie meets the girl’s mother, too.

As the film winds back to the theme of motherhood and sets it briefly in a more positive light, mother and daughter respond to Barbie's call for help to unseat the patriarchy that Ken has introduced into Barbieland.

The film ends where it began, with the Barbies in charge and the Kens powerless -- but with a difference.

Barbie has found her sexed, human identity with its risks and possibilities. The mother takes Barbie to her first visit to a gynaecologist. Greta Gerwig, the director of the film, made the import of this visit clear in an interview. It means, she says, that Barbie is now sexually active. She wants to have reproductive freedom and to avoid motherhood.

So we are back more or less where we started. 


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The Barbies take  their “Supreme Court” back from the Kens. Abortion rights will be protected by a Barbieland SCOTUS. The Kens are beaten when the Barbies turn them against each other by sowing division and jealousy among them.

Despite the film's crusade against men and motherhood, one can't help observing that in a film that aims to empower women, the protagonist is a bimbo doll with expensive clothes and immaculate grooming. Power over whom?

The visit to the gynaecologist suggests the answer. Is it really not still “a man's world”? Is pleasing and indulging men to become even more central in a woman's life than it was under the patriarchy?

Childlessness is the new order. But neither in Barbieland not in the real world is it  delivering for men or women. Female fertility control is perhaps the most life altering and onerous of all burdens, physically and psychologically.

And what happens when time catches up for women?  Sitting on a park bench in the real world beside a naturally ageing woman, Barbie remarks, “you're beautiful” and the woman, serene and at peace with herself, answers, “I know it”. We might ask from what source her serenity arises. From having no kids? From having no Ken? Barbie doesn't ask.

As a film, Barbie is visually compelling brain candy but it denigrates both motherhood and men. It asks: can women be empowered in a society that burdens them with motherhood? Can they ever find equality if they have to compete with rougher, tougher, more driven males?

Barbie suggests a radical social restructuring that forces men to the sidelines and feminises society and its institutions.

The film feeds into black-and-white victim/oppressor narrative. Men are ruthless monsters and predators unless they are subjugated and psychologically emasculated by female power. The oppressed must win. The oppressor must lose. Then the world will become pink and uncomplicated.

Tragically, what Gerwig ignores is the family. A family rooted in love is the place where the fundamental complementarity and mutual dependency of men and women is nurtured. Motherhood is a big part of it but so is fatherhood. If a society doesn't value and nurture the family it will end up with nothing but the plastic utopia of Barbieland or dystopias of one sort or another.


Margaret Hickey is a regular contributor to Position Papers. She is a mother of three and lives with her husband in Blarney.

Image credit: Reshma Mallecha on Pexels   

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